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Monday, 31 October 2011
Page: 12217

Ms OWENS (Parramatta) (18:45): I also rise to support the Safety, Rehabilitation and Compensation Amendment (Fair Protection for Firefighters) Bill 2011 with some pleasure. There are people in our society, firefighters among them, who work very much at the front line when keeping us safe. Firefighters will go into a burning building to save property, and they go well and truly above the call of duty when lives are at stake. For most of us, it is just a job that is done. We see them in their red trucks and we know what wonderful work they do, but few of us really understand the risks that they take to life, limb and mental health when they do their job. Few of us know that they do not talk about what actually happens when they attend an accident where a semitrailer has run over a person or someone has been run over by a train. These are circumstances and events that stay in their minds for the rest of their lives.

Similarly, when firefighters move into a burning building, they are subjected to toxins that we now know beyond doubt lead to increases in cancers. The original bill referred to one cancer. Mr Bandt has moved an amendment to increase the number of cancers listed to include multiple myeloma, primary site lung cancer in nonsmokers, primary site prostate cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer and oesophageal cancer. The government is prepared to support that amendment in the interests of fairness for firefighters.

The science underpinning this legislation is pivotal to its justification. Given the quantity and quality of evidence collected around the world, there is no doubt that there is a link between firefighting and increased incidence of certain cancers. That has been demonstrated beyond doubt. I should say that we are talking about career firefighters. We are talking mainly about the men and women who go into burning buildings, because the science demonstrates that that is where the toxins are released. But, if at some time in the future there is scientific evidence to demonstrate bushfires also lead to increased risk of cancer, then the government will consider that as well.

Similar legislation has been in place overseas for nearly a decade, and in recent years it has in fact been strengthened as more evidence has been found to show that cancers result from exposure to the toxins in burning buildings. Studies conducted around the world, including in Australia, in the 1980s demonstrated that certain types of cancer are caused by the release of carcinogens, and these are the various substances that firefighters are exposed to in the course of their daily work.

On the matter of lung cancer, the government intends to prescribe it at a later date. The issue is in the definition of a nonsmoker. That definition will be developed by the government in consultation with experts and key stakeholders. So dealing with lung cancer will come at a slightly later date.

In many parts of Australia our firefighters wear the very best of equipment and the very best of clothing, but because of the kind of work they do it is important that the clothing they wear breathes. If it did not, firefighters would no doubt have very serious issues given their high heart rates in the circumstances of their work. Their clothing breathes, which means that even with the best of protective gear they are exposed to substances that are absorbed into their skin through the course of their work. When firefighters start in the job they are some of the fittest people in the country. The firefighting service is extremely difficult to get into and is very competitive, I am told. As I said, when they join the service they are among the fittest people in our community but, within five years of working under those conditions, they are almost twice as likely as the average person to contract leukaemia, and there are other forms of cancer where the risk is much, much higher than that. This bill recognises the realities of work as a fireman. It recognises that we support them not only in the work they do but in the lives that they live because of their work. I commend the bill to the House.